Nuclear disarmament will be the big topic on the table if Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un finally meet in coming weeks as planned. And rightly so, as the United States and North Korea each have nuclear arms at the ready against each other. The two are locked in a cold-war-style threat of mutual destruction.
Yet first on the agenda should be another type of disarmament: Call off the vicious name-calling.
The cycle of personal insults between the two leaders is itself mutually destructive. Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim have helped create the very military tensions they now seek to lessen. They have belittled each other to an extreme, implying their behavior in warfare might also be extreme.
They must first agree to abide by the informal norms of civility that have long served as the guardrails of peace between people and nations.
In planning the talks, the US and North Korea may now realize that nuclear warfare would be futile. If so, each will be trying to figure out how to disarm on the Korean Peninsula with some level of trust that the other will do the same under an agreement.
As during any disarmament negotiation, building trust is the most difficult part. In the coming talks, that process can begin with a discussion on ways to replace the public shaming between Trump and Kim with private respect, decency, and a deep listening for motives. Such soft skills can yield hard results.
“There is real power in civility...,” write Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard, former White House social secretaries, in a new book, “Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life.” During their work with visiting heads of state under previous presidents, they saw how kindness and other skills can deflect or dissipate fear and anger.
“When you’ve mastered these skills, you can go forth like a superhero and be a force for good in the world,” they write.
“You don’t have to sail through life with the joie de vivre of a Disney forest creature, but you won’t experience positive outcomes if what you’re putting into the world is negative.”
From geopolitics to American politics, the task these days is to restore the social norms of civility that can help prevent personal attacks. Even the White House Correspondents’ Association, after the uproar at last weekend’s annual dinner over personal slights by comedian Michelle Wolf, is rethinking whether it should stand for higher norms of conduct in political discourse.
The world is safer today from nuclear weapons because most nations have abided by a nonproliferation treaty negotiated a half-century ago in a spirit of civility and mutual disarmament. A few nations, such as North Korea, have tried to break from that pact. Civility may bring them back in.